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French Historical Studies 27.4 (2004) 747-751

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Daniel Roche and History's Movable Feast

Daniel Roche writes a lot. Every time you turn your head, he has produced another big book full of new ideas, based on documents previously ignored, and proposing novel approaches that immediately seem self-evident. We all now routinely turn to Jacques-Louis Ménétra for the ordinary man's perspective on life in the eighteenth century. We all lecture our students on the fine points of the history of clothing, especially underclothes. We all know that "l'histoire des choses banales" is anything but banal in Roche's hands. Even students in the history of Western civilization learn about the role of provincial academies in the French Enlightenment, though it goes without saying that in my lectures, at least, I give a greatly reduced version of Roche's 900 pages, 47 tables, 23 graphs, and 61 maps in Le siècle des Lumières en province.1

But though Roche's works are numerous and offer a large amount of quantitative data, what is involved here is not simply quantity. The essence of Roche's contribution lies elsewhere. But where? I want to focus on his methods of research (rather than on his findings) and on the larger ethical framework that inspires them.

In Histoire des choses banales Roche begins with a well-worn question: "This book aims to contribute to the understanding of those transformations from what we call, lacking a better term, traditional society, which moves little by little from a moral economy of community welfare and scarcity to an economy aspiring to happiness in this world, relative [End Page 747] abundance and utility."2 At issue, then, is the passage from a traditional society to a society that is modern, mobile, and consumer oriented. Roche's teacher, Ernest Labrousse, had already asked the same question, and according to Roche himself, Labrousse "bequeathed me as well the will to better understand the great rupture of the eighteenth century, from the Enlightenment to the French Revolution."3

Roche traces his own intellectual style back to Labrousse: "lively research that leaps from one aim to another, animated by intellectual curiosity, sympathy for differences, tolerance in debate, and the determination to know."4 The influence of Labrousse can also be seen in the citations of Marx, even, somewhat unexpectedly, at the beginning of La France des Lumières, where Roche quotes a passage from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy on the influence of material life on human consciousness.5 In Les républicains des lettres, he recalls this aim with a bit of irony: "I have always wanted to do a social history of culture, that is, something other than the history of ideas, something that approaches the history of class consciousness. Forgive me this outmoded vocabulary when today everyone knows ‘that there is no longer a bourgeoisie,' very little class, and, finally, as for their consciousness, everyone knows what there is of that."6

Roche cites Marx and recognizes his debt to Labrousse but takes culture much more seriously than a strictly Marxist perspective would imply: "To understand the relationship between the production of objects and their consumption, it is . . . necessary to call into question again the classic opposition between infrastructures and superstructures, between realities and their representations, between facts that demand symbolic and intellectual explications and those that mobilize material and economic meanings."7 At the same time, this interest in culture marks his separation from Fernand Braudel. Roche never undertook the history of ideas in the usual sense; there are more pages in La France des Lumières on consumption than on the writings of Voltaire. But when analyzing the relationship of humans to objects, Roche sees something both more complicated than Marxist alienation and more cultural than the "material civilization" of Braudel. In Histoire des choses banales, for example, he refers the reader to the history of [End Page 748] the book, the history of clothing, and the history of science, a revealing combination. We must...


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pp. 747-751
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Archived 2004
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